Its origins are in the federal government.
As many readers of The American Spectator will know, I was a member of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, a 10-member body appointed by Congress to investigate the causes of the financial crisis of 2008. The Commission issued its report in late January 2011, with a majority concluding that the crisis could have been avoided if the private sector had not taken so many risks and government regulators had not been asleep at the switch. I dissented from the majority’s view, arguing in my dissent that the financial crisis would not have occurred if government housing policies had not fostered the creation of an unprecedented number of subprime and otherwise risky loans immediately before the financial crisis began.
After the majority’s report was published, many people lamented that it was not possible to achieve a bipartisan agreement even on the facts. But the way the Commission was organized and run made this impossible. One glaring example will illustrate the problem. In March 2010, Edward Pinto, a resident fellow (and my colleague) at the American Enterprise Institute who had served as chief credit officer at Fannie Mae, sent the Commission a 70-page, fully sourced memorandum on the number of subprime and other high-risk mortgages in the financial system in 2008. Pinto’s research showed that he had found more than 25 million such mortgages (his later work showed that there were approximately 27 million). Since there are about 55 million mortgages in the U.S., Pinto’s research indicated that, as the financial crisis began, half of all U.S. mortgages were of inferior quality and liable to default when housing prices were no longer rising. In August, Pinto supplemented his initial research with a paper documenting the efforts of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), over two decades and through two administrations, to increase home ownership by reducing mortgage-underwriting standards.
This information, which highlighted the role of government policy in fostering the creation of these low-quality mortgages, raised important questions about whether the mortgage meltdown would have been so destructive if those government policies had not existed. Any objective investigation of the causes of the financial crisis would have looked carefully at Pinto’s research, exposed it to the members of the Commission, taken Pinto’s testimony, and tested the accuracy of his research. But the Commission took none of these steps. Pinto’s memos were never made available to the other members of the FCIC, or even to the commissioners who were members of the subcommittee charged with considering the role of housing policy in the financial crisis.
Ultimately, I dissented from the Commission majority’s report. There was no alternative. The Commission’s management — particularly its chairman, Philip Angelides, a former Democratic treasurer of California and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate — would not allow the staff to pursue any theories about the causes of the financial crisis other than those embodied in the standard left-wing narrative. And in the end a majority of the commissioners — never having been presented with any contrary evidence — signed on to a report that said the financial crisis could have been avoided if there had been better regulation of the private sector.
The question I have been most frequently asked about the Commission is why Congress bothered to authorize it at all. Without waiting for the Commission’s report, Congress passed and the president signed the Dodd-Frank Act (DFA), far-reaching and highly consequential regulatory legislation that I believe will have a strong adverse effect on U.S. economic growth in the future. In enacting the DFA, Congress and the president acted without seeking to understand the true causes of the wrenching events of 2008, perhaps following the precept of the President’s chief of staff — “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
But to avoid the next financial crisis, we must understand what caused the one from which we are now slowly emerging, and take action to avoid the same mistakes in the future. If there is doubt that these lessons are important, consider the ongoing efforts to amend the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 (CRA), which currently requires all insured banks and S&Ls to make loans to borrowers at or below 80 percent of the median income in the areas the banks service. If these loans were profitable, of course, there would be no reason to require by regulation that they be made. In the last session of the 111th Congress, a bill was introduced to extend the CRA to all “U.S. nonbank financial companies,” and was lauded by House Financial Services Committee chairman Barney Frank as his “top priority.” If enacted, the proposal would have applied to the whole financial community the same government social policy mandates that were ultimately responsible for the mortgage meltdown and the financial crisis.
Because of the 2010 election, it is unlikely that supporters of this idea will have the power to adopt similar legislation in the current Congress, but in the future other lawmakers with views similar to Barney Frank’s may seek to mandate the same requirements. At that time, the only real bulwark against the government’s use of private entities for social policy purposes will be a full understanding of how these policies were connected to the events of 2008.
What Caused the Financial Crisis?
GEORGE SANTAYANA is often quoted for the aphorism that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Looking back on the financial crisis, we can see why the study of history is often so contentious and why revisionist histories are so easy to construct. There are always many factors that could have caused a historical event; the difficult task is to discern which, among a welter of possible causes, were the significant ones — the ones without which history would have been different.
Using this standard, I believe that the sine qua non of the financial crisis was U.S. government housing policy, which led to the creation of 27 million subprime and other risky loans — half of all mortgages in the United States — which were ready to default as soon as the massive 1997-2007 housing bubble began to deflate. If the U.S. government had not chosen this policy path — fostering the growth of a bubble of unprecedented size and an equally unprecedented number of weak and high-risk residential mortgages — the great financial crisis of 2008 would never have occurred.
In this article, I will outline the logical process that I followed in coming to the conclusion that it was the U.S. government’s housing policies — and nothing else — that were responsible for the 2008 financial crisis.
The inquiry has to begin with what everyone agrees was the trigger for the crisis — the so-called mortgage meltdown that occurred in 2007. That was the relatively sudden outbreak of delinquencies and defaults among mortgages, primarily in a few states — California, Arizona, Nevada, and Florida — but to a lesser degree everywhere in the country. No one disputes that the losses on these mortgages and the decline in housing values that resulted from the ensuing foreclosures weakened financial institutions in the U.S. and around the world and were the precipitating cause of the crisis.
This raised a significant question. The U.S. had experienced housing bubbles in the past. Since the Second World War, there had been two — beginning in 1979 and 1989 — but when these bubbles deflated they had triggered only local losses. Why was the deflation of the housing bubble in 2007 so destructive?
The Commission’s answer was that there were weaknesses in the financial system — failures of regulation and risk management, excessive leverage and risk-taking — that were responsible for the ensuing devastation. To establish this idea, the Commission had to show that these weaknesses were something new. It didn’t attempt to do this, although that was an essential logical step in establishing its point. And the Commission ignored a more obvious answer: the quality of the mortgages in the bubble. As I noted earlier — and as the Commission never acknowledged or disputed — by 2008, half all mortgages in the U.S. — 27 million — were subprime or otherwise risky loans. If the Commission had really been looking for the reasons that the collapsing bubble was so destructive, the poor quality of the mortgages in the bubble was a far more likely hypothesis than that there had been a previously undetected weakening in the way the U.S. financial system operated.
This in turn raised two other major questions. Why were there so many weak and risky loans in this bubble? What had happened to mortgage underwriting standards in the preceding years that caused such a serious deterioration in mortgage quality?